That is, not being a heretic is hard work. Being a heretic is super easy.
Like we said last week, most people believe some sort of heresy, and they don’t even know it. Take for example the Trinity: Possibly one of the oldest, most widely debated and complex doctrines of the church is that of the Trinity. The doctrine holds that the Christian God, first revealed to the patriarchs of Judaism, is a god that is both three and one. The paradox of the definition has lead to much strife and confusion. Understanding how anything could be Trinitarian—even God—is extremely difficult. Coming to a correct understanding of the Trinity, though, is crucial for the faith, and any doctrine that attempts to explain the nature of our God must be given special attention and care, because it is on the nature of God that we base our ethics, our salvation, and our hope.
Both the Church Fathers and modern theologians adamantly affirm the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, seeing it as completely relevant, particularly in Christian ethics and prayer. Beyond that, the Trinity is important to the Christian religion for its uniqueness; no other belief system boasts a theology like the complex Trinity. Because of this, it has become a defining trait of Christendom. Augustine even used the doctrine in his apologetics for pagan philosophers. By the Trinity, he argued that Christianity is not myth, nor can it be derived by secular philosophy and logic. Centuries later, Jürgen Moltmann takes this distinctiveness to a new level when he argues that Christianity is so unique that is neither monotheistic nor tritheistic—but simply Trinitarian.
When we first begin to consider the Trinity, it may not seem so bad. You got the Father, you got the Son, and you got the Holy Ghost. Easy enough. But when we start talking about the inner workings of the Trinity and who is more “God,” it gets a little harder.
For instance, ask yourself who’s in charge? If you think it’s the Father, you’re not necessarily wrong. But now ask yourself, when member of the godhead is “God”—when you think, I’m worshipping God, who are you talking about? If you said the Father again, then we’re inching toward a problem. It’s the heresy of Subordinationism (a common historical form being Arianism); it’s the belief that the members are not all equal, that God the Father is the true God, and the Son comes from him and is subordinate to him (and usually that the Spirit is subordinate to both). As Christians, we claim that they are all God and they are equal.
And everything seems fine for a while until you have to explain their equality. You’ve got three individuals and they’re all on the same level, they’re all God. And now it’s starting to sound like you’re preaching Tritheism. At this point, you’re blurring the line between the Trinity and the three head gods of Hinduism. You’ve fallen into heresy again. And this is where Christian tradition comes to save the day again, reminding you that the orthodox view is that these three persons are all one.
After this, it is only a matter of time until you slip into the most common and dangerous Trinitarian heresy: Modalism. In its original form, Sabellianism, this heresy claimed that God manifested himself as the Father, YHWH, during the time of the Old Testament, then as the Son during Christ’s ministry, and lastly as the Spirit during these latter days. But modalism can be broader and more alluring than even that. It is the belief that they are all the same God, just manifested in different ways, wearing different faces. And when I hear people talk about the Trinity, this is usually what they describe, and that’s sad because as Christians, we claim that the persons of the Trinity are distinct.
There are more sophisticated heresies beyond these and commonly accepted analogies that don’t help either (like an apple—because an apple skin without the rest is not an apple). It can feel pretty tricky and as if there is no right answer. And fortunately for you, that is the right answer. Long ago, the Church decided that fully describing the innerworking of the Trinity is impossible. Instead, the only description the Church can give with confidence is that of Sacred Mystery—an acknowledgment that the Trinity, as Augustine pointed out so long ago, transcends the minds of humans.
And at this point, you might feel like this has all been a waste of time, a purely academic affair. But I want to reassure you there is a reason for all this—understanding the Trinity is important. First consider prayer. Most of us are familiar with praying to the Father through the Son. But the church has always contended that we are not limited in this. As we mature in our prayer life, we expand the audience of our prayer, addressing the different members of the Godhead for their different areas of influence.
Take also the inner relationship of the Trinity. As John tells us, God is love, and that tells us that Trinity exists in constant state of loving relationship with one another. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Spirit and the Father, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This is our example for holy living. We, like our God, are to live in community, breaking out beyond our personal isolation, not content to merely work out our faith in our own minds.
This whole intellectual endeavor is hard work. It seems tedious, I get it. But there is a reason beliefs are heresies. The Church is not about setting about up doctrines for the sake of doctrine—no matter how much we may think that. There is a reason for these beliefs, and it is worth the work to understand them.